Taking Control of Migraine Headaches
The first time I had a migraine I thought I was having a stroke. I was 21 and working as a trainee in an NHS hospital at the time. It was a stressful day and I was talking to a colleague when suddenly I felt ‘odd’. I couldn’t see properly, I was confused and unable to fully put a sentence together.
At the time I was unable to explain what was wrong with me, other than that I wasn’t feeling well and needed to go home. I went back to my house and felt awful for days. I didn’t have a headache this first time, just the ‘aura’ that comes with a migraine.
In those early years I often didn’t get the actual headache, just a lot of the other symptoms that come with migraines. Numb lips and tongue, jagged vision, flashing lights, confusion and mild nausea. As the years went on, these symptoms progressed to be combined with monstrous, thudding headaches that left me reeling and unable to do anything other than lie in a dark room.
I’ve suffered from chronic migraines now for about 15 years. During this time I’ve learnt that I have a lot of different migraine triggers, fluorescent lights, alcohol, skipping meals, computer glare and hormonal changes all give me a headache. But eventually it got to a point when even in the absence of these factors, I would still have a migraine every week, lasting for about 5 days at a time.
Beta blockers worked well at preventing my migraines for a couple of years. Then after I had my two children they stopped working and instead gave me low blood pressure and dizzy spells. As a parent, the chronic migraines went from being debilitating and miserable, to downright dangerous. A toddler is hard enough to keep safe when you’re feeling well. When you can’t remember your own name, you can’t look after a child.
So, in desperation I tried some of the different medications available. Amitriptyline made me feel like a zombie, I couldn’t stay awake more than an hour after taking it, didn’t wake in the night if one of the children woke and couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Topiramate made me feel sick as a dog, I had stomach cramps every day and I couldn’t eat or drink anything. Each different tablet had to be started at a low dose and built up so it took months to determine if each drug worked or not, during which time I continued to suffer from the migraines and the drug side-effects.
Then one day, I had a mini revelation. I was reading an article about aspartame and how it causes migraine in a lot of people.
In an effort to reduce the amount of sugar I was consuming, I had switched to aspartame in my tea and coffee a few years ago, and I drank 3 or 4 cups a day. I subsequently realised that it was in a lot of other foods and drinks in my diet too (my low-fat diet yoghurts for example). I decided to cut it out and within days I stopped getting the aura with my migraines (the tingling fingers, numb lips and tongue, flashing lights and confusion). I still got a headache every month but my migraine medication actually started to work as it was supposed to and stopped the headache from progressing into a full attack.
I realised that if one type of artificial sweetener had this effect on me, what were all of the other chemicals present in my diet of processed food doing to me! My first elimination diet was a revelation. I learnt that all artificial sweeteners gave me a headache. I don’t think that any other specific food groups trigger my migraines. I think in my case, other than the artificial sweeteners, eating refined carbs and refined sugar causes my blood sugar levels to become unstable and this triggers my migraines. If I eat a clean diet (free from processed food, low in natural sugars, no alcohol), with regular, balanced meals, then I don’t get any migraines at all.
I drink alcohol (in moderation) again now and eat some processed food. Sometimes I get away with it and sometimes I don’t. Life is all about balance. On the whole I’d rather eat better, take less medication and feel well. But at the same time, life with wine and dark chocolate in it is infinitely more joyful.
How does the food you eat affect you? If you’d like to find out then join The Green Apple Club and try the 28 DAYS Clean Eating Challenge. I think you might be surprised by the results, especially if, like me, you suffer from chronic migraines.
Published by Sonia Nicholas, Founder of The Green Apple Club
Further reading – Article: Migraine Triggers: The Truth of The (Brain) Matter
The complete dietary guide and the TGAC 3 Day Anti-Migraine Protocol can be found in the book Food to Fight Migraine: A Complete Guide to Dietary Control.